On our first full day in New Orleans, we voluntarily woke up bright and early to head over to Cafe du Monde, the famous purveyor of the French donuts known as beignets, for breakfast. Having seen the epic line outside the building the day before, we were determined to beat the crowds, and when we showed up at 8:30 in the morning, we were able to stroll right in and have a seat.
If you are in New Orleans, Cafe du Monde is an absolute must, if you ask me. They do one thing (beignets and their slightly bitter, chicory-laced coffee), and they do it very, very well, after many years of practice. The beignets are fried to order, and arrive on your table piping hot with a liberal dusting of powdered sugar on top. Beware of inhaling while you eat, and if you're smart, you'll try to situate yourself so that the wind in the open-air patio blows the powdered sugar away from you and not all over your clothes. There are few things more delicious than a freshly-fried donut (I believe this is the basis for the success of the Krispy Kreme empire), and the ethereal beignets at Cafe du Monde are no different. I can't conceive of a better way to start your day in New Orleans.
Since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped by St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, given my interest in ecclesiastic architecture. A Catholic church has stood on this site since 1718, though the current building dates back to the 1850s. It may be the oldest continuously operating Catholic cathedral in the United States, but it was far from being the most impressive church I've seen, architecturally speaking. The interior was quite plain, and it had some nice, but not particularly unique or impressive stained glass windows. The exterior has a distinctly European sensibility, but the interior lacks the flourishes and craftsmanship of its brethren across the pond.
|Sculpture by Jaume Plensa in the Bestoff Sculpture Garden.|
After our brief visit to the Cathedral, we hopped on a streetcar (a mode of transportation that is quaint, albeit not terribly efficient) and headed out to City Park, the vast green space on the northern edge of the city, not far from Lake Pontchartrain. Its proximity to the lake meant that it was almost entirely inundated following Hurricane Katrina, and the flood waters did extensive damage. Hundreds of centuries-old oak trees did not survive, and the New Orleans Botanical Gardens were completely wiped out. The park is administered by the state, which has made tremendous strides towards redeveloping the land, and the traces of the flood are all but invisible today.
The park is home to the New Orleans Museum of Art (which we decided to skip after reading several unfavorable comparisons to the Art Institute of Chicago), the aforementioned Botanical Gardens, an amusement park with a historic carousel, a fairytale-themed park for children, and the Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Of all these attractions, however, we only got to see the Sculpture Garden, as every other thing in the park (besides the art museum) was closed on Monday. Like I said, I really came into this trip unprepared in terms of advance planning.
The Besthoff gardens were pleasant enough though, even in the winter, though I'm sure their plants and flowers are even more lovely in the summertime. As it was, there seemed to be a preponderance of picturesque Spanish moss, which is apparently native to this part of the country. There was a decent variety of artists represented, including Claus Oldenburg, Robert Indiana, and even Jaume Plensa, the artist behind the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. When Dad and I visited Barcelona in 2005, we visited Plensa's studio via an introduction through one of Dad's friend's with some serious art world connections, and he just so happened to be developing the idea for the series of sculptures that was represented in New Orleans. It's amazing how life unfolds, isn't it?
After walking through the park long enough to ascertain that all the other attractions were closed, we caught a streetcar back into the heart of the city and sought out lunch at Mother's, a hole-in-the-wall counter service joint with plenty of history and atmosphere. We went there on the advice of Stephen and his wife, and decided to go the po'boy route, ordering their famous Ferdi Special, a sandwich that features baked ham, sliced roast beef, and "debris." The love for debris, the scraps of meat that fall off into its accompanying juices when it is sliced, is most definitely a New Orleans thing. Neither Justin nor I were impressed with the roast beef and debris, and would have preferred a ham-only sandwich, though the sandwiches were tasty and filling nonetheless, though the debris-laden gravy made them exceptionally messy to consume.
Still without much of a plan, we improvised an agenda for the rest of our afternoon by hopping on the St. Charles streetcar with the intention of heading towards the Garden District to do a walking tour that was featured in the guidebook. I was bummed, as it was after 2:30, the closing time for Lafayette Cemetery Number 1, which is located in the historic neighborhood. As luck would have it, however, the city's somewhat lackadaisical approach to time frames meant that the cemetery's caretakers hadn't shown up yet to close the gates when we walked by, so we were able to walk around it a bit, albeit cautiously.
Justin was more concerned about being mugged, after reading that thieves like to hide in the labyrinthine walkways of the city's cemeteries and prey on tourists, but I was more concerned about keeping an eye on the gate at all times so we wouldn't get locked in if the caretakers showed up. Much as I love an atmospheric cemetery, I don't want to spend the night in one before my time!
Following our brief turn through the cemetery, we embarked on the walking tour of the Garden District recommended by the guidebook. The Garden District developed largely between the 1830s and 1900, and attracted wealthy Americans who were drawn to the city's prosperity, but who didn't wish to mingle with the city's existing Creole population over in the French Quarter. The area where the Garden District was located also had the advantage of being at a slightly higher elevation, providing a natural defense against flood waters. As a result, the historic antebellum mansions of the historic neighborhood survived Hurricane Katrina with only minimal damage from its associated winds.
We sauntered past the well-maintained "gingerbread" Victorian houses, and took in the elaborate landscaping that gives the area its name. We noted the houses that were for sale and tried to imagine what it would be like to live in one, if we had the means. Frankly, I think the upkeep would be too much of a pain, but I suppose if you could afford one of those houses, you could afford to have someone else paint, repair, and do your gardening for you.
By the time we had seen all there was to see, I had started to receive a string of text messages from Dad, who was keenly interested in our dinner plans for the evening. Given the size of our lunch, we were considering just grabbing a light snack in lieu of another big meal, but Dad wouldn't hear of it. He tried convince me that we needed to experience one of the city's famous historic restaurants in the French Quarter -- Antoine's, The Court of Two Sisters, Galatoire's, or Arnaud's -- that are known for their authentic regional and French-inflected fare, but I was resolute in my conviction that our travel budget couldn't support an outing to any of those places. Eventually, he ended up offering to pay for our dinner, minus the cost of what we would have paid for dinner if we'd chosen our own restaurant.
I took him up on his offer, and we ended up at Arnaud's, where we enjoyed a very fancy meal in truly romantic surroundings. Given my failure to plan ahead for this trip, I'd been unable to get us reservations anywhere for Valentine's Day itself, so we decided to consider Arnaud's our big Valentine's Day celebration. There was surprisingly delicious turtle soup, an assortment of baked oysters for Justin, and I had a very delicate piece of fish topped with scallop mouse, wrapped in puff pastry that was whimsically decorated to look like a fish. When I ordered it, the waitress tried to warn me that it was "a lot of puff pastry." As if that's a bad thing!